Monday, February 24, 2014

Just Letting You Know We Know You

A week or so ago we heard a couple of experts on a news program discussing the practice of information collection by internet web sites. Just as routine as your connection, the experts agreed, was the practice of capturing and interpreting information about us and then using it to further their bottom line. The so-easy-to-use "apps" you download for nothing to your handy cell phone can do the same thing.

The experts discussed not the technology - you either understand that sort of thing or not - but rather how pervasive passive information gathering is in our society, and how it is used. The thing is, every time you click a key, or almost that often, some piece of your private and personal life is being detached from you and added to the world at large. What struck us was not that this happens, but that it is something you can’t control. Evidently, according to the mavens on screen, there is no way you can opt out of having your information collected, except of course, by not using the ‘net or a cell phone.

Sure there are folks who don’t use either one, but they are, at least in the eyes of the digital scrutinizers, marginal anyway. And they must be right. How else can one keep up with the world of today without being part of the digital age?

Well, so what? Suppose this is all true, that every time you click something while you are connected, a little piece of you goes into someone’s data bank? What is the information used for? Why do companies, not to mention governments, want that information and what do they do with it? The government usage is rather obvious to us: the ability to find and track those who would do us harm is an essential function of government. Abuse is always possible, and unless we remain aware of it, our freedom and safety could be at risk. On the other hand, without such information gathering, our freedom and safety could be at risk. Vigilance and the willingness to call attention to abuses is essential to freedom. (Don’t misread me: there are ways of doing this without giving away those secrets we need to hold, and simply throwing all that sort of thing out in public in great detail is just as dangerous as unmoderated collection.)

There is one other aspect of this information gathering that one must also be aware of: mis-information. Lives are equally at risk from mis-interpretation of information bits as from true information about real threats.

But here is what makes all of this a concern: several days after the news program aired, a friend and I were exchanging emails about the weather and how it was affecting our daily lives. My correspondent used the work "trek" in his first paragraph, and in my reply, I used the word "trekking." The next time I opened my email, in a panel to the right of the message were ads for places I could "trek," and clothing and tools that were essential to "trekking," as in the Himalayas, or the Sahara. Wonderful, this modern age of computers; they can pick out a word or two and reach a conclusion; in this case, deducing that my friend and I were planning a trip to one of those "faraway places with strange sounding names," as the old song has it. Without asking for recommendations, we were being directed to the outfitters and outfits we would need, and places we could go. Except.

Except that what we were writing about was leaving our respective mountains and going to the nearby village or town to buy supplies we need for everyday living right here at home.

So what conclusions do I draw from this? Three, actually:

1.  You can’t escape the Internet
2.  The Internet isn’t all that smart.
3.  It doesn’t matter. In the wrong hands, in the right circumstances, even  the most innocent words can make you guilty.

(As I was preparing to review this, prior to publishing it here, I took a break to look in my email in-box. Two news summaries were waiting to be read. I found an article in each summary expressing the same concerns, so if you read this on your computer today, be sure and take a look at what "recommendations" appear in your next email session.)


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

About Me

It wasn’t until I recognized that a "blog" could be what I’d always known as a personal essay, that I finally embraced the idea of "blogging." It is a form I enjoy, and I like the discipline of producing something on a regular schedule (more or less). I try to have something new on my page every week, usually on Sunday, but sometimes a bit later (like this week). It is both a challenge and a problem.

The challenge is to find something to write about. The difficulty is writing about something that is personal, but not just about "me." An essay, by its very nature, is an opinion or observation that explains or defines or illustrates something greater than self, but from a personal perspective.

Every life is personal to the one living it. The writer must sharpen the subject to a point that has some universal appeal, some point that can be felt by the readers who can then discover something about themselves, or understand another’s point of view, and perhaps learn to accept or at least not reject something different.

This week I wanted to write about a man I knew, a doctor, who represented something nearly erased from our culture. It was about the kind of man who labored under the title of "Old Country Doctor." The man I wanted to write about had recently passed away, and though he had been retired for some years, had many former patients to mourn his passing. The problem I had was that in order to make the story believable, I found myself offering a lot about me, and how I knew him, what our relationship had been, and why I felt I was qualified to examine his professional life, relate it to his personal philosophy, and connect it to what I see as a diminishing skill in the world of medicine.

I wanted, above all, to pay tribute to the men and women who, like this man, represent a coterie of professionals who didn’t "deliver health care," but instead, "practiced medicine." They were (and a few still are) physicians who learned that while science and technology could assist in diagnosing and treating the ills that are part of living, they needed to develop and refine and constantly use a very special set of skills if they were to help sick people get well, and well people stay healthy. They learned first and foremost, that to help another they had to listen, to look, to touch, to smell, to combine all of those sensations into a picture of a patient, and make judgements about how to go about helping, curing, and where that wasn’t possible, giving the patient the tools to live with or cope with dying of whatever the ailment was.

The old country doctor is a well known character in literature, in theater and films. He’s generally crusty, a bit over-bearing, but underneath it all, a compassionate and caring human being. It’s an apt portrait. In rural America, especially, where hospitals and specialists have always been in short supply, that character developed as an image of the over-worked, under-rewarded, loving but self protective person whose humanity often had to be subordinated in order to be able to fall into bed as the sun was rising, only to be called out to do it all over again, often miles from any other help. It took a special kind of person to follow that way of life, and there had to be some way of pulling a carapace over oneself to survive.

The man I wanted to write about was that kind of person, and I was privileged to know him. As I said, I felt that I had to establish my own credentials in order to write about him. I realize now that isn’t necessary. If you are old enough to have known such a doctor, in the country or in the city, you will know what I mean. There is only one more thing to add.

Thank you, Doc.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Word of the Year

The word of the year for 2013, as chosen by the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED), is "Selfie." You don’t have to look it up, I’m sure. If you use a computer and the Internet, (or even if you don’t), you are surely aware of the term. Should this be your first contact with it, I’ll save you asking your mate: it means a photograph of yourself, primarily taken by holding your cell phone in front of you and taking the picture. Because it is taken with your phone, you can then send it to all of your friends. And to a lot of people you don’t know, it turns out. Just ask (email of twit) your friends. Ask the politicians or other notorious public figures who have sent pictures of themselves to the one person they want to impress, and have then  found the picture coming back to them via the same technology they used for what they somehow perceived as a private channel. Coming back as a "viral" image. Maybe viral would have been a better choice for word of the year, except that it's been around far longer than selfie.

It reminds me of a line one of my staff used to use. Jerry was a great bicyclist who rode his two-wheeler on long trips whenever he could. "A car," he would say with disdain, "is a private place to pick your nose in public." Well, your cell phone and your Internet connection and your pod and your pad all fall into that category. That’s why "selfie" has made such an impact on 21st century communications. The problem is, like everything else these days, unless you aren’t connected, you are living at least part-time in a virtual world, where there is virtually no privacy. The thing is, if you want to be a part of the contemporary world, you must learn to use the tools of the times. In the past our culture was much more private, more security conscious. The image of the spy reading a message and then eating the paper (rice paper with just a bit of butter and salt, please) defines the old world, perhaps. The selfie, it seems, explains the present.

And about "twit." I do know that people who use Twitter are said to "tweet," but it seems like "twit" to me.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Survival Games

There are birds swarming the feeders these days. Birds and an occasional squirrel. The squirrels seem to wait for the temperature to rise before coming out of their nests, but not the birds. They are there at sunrise. Given the nature of their need for food, one would think a squirrel climbing on the feeder pole would cause them to summon their biggest brethren to attack and not wait for me to let the dogs loose on the deck where the feeders are.

It is curious that the only birds I ever see in attack mode are hawks. We have a resident kestrel that I hear now in the morning. It doesn’t attack the squirrels, either. In fact the only prey I have seen one take down was a blue jay, which because of our lack of chickens, is probably the largest bird the chicken hawk can find nearby.

There is probably a lesson here. Birds and squirrels are certainly not related beyond being living things, yet they have figured out how to live in a world where there are differences, and not just of opinion.

We live in a place where the wild things are far more numerous than domesticated animals and even plants. As different as the animals are, they get along reasonably well. Even the dogs, people oriented as no other mammals seem to be, have a sense of what constitutes a threat, and what is merely a good game (pardon the pun) to play. Chasing a deer, barking at a squirrel, even getting into a scrap with a grounded raccoon is almost always tempered by a modicum of good sense. Knowing when to stop is a lesson most dogs learn early. Usually one encounter with a skunk will teach a life lesson not soon forgotten.

I’m not thinking about dogs gone wild, you understand. Even the most loyal companion will turn if attacking another animal is the difference between death and life. But just as boys caught up in a playground fight will be best pals when the fight is over, dogs of the pet variety will often chase a creature not of their kind and be satisfied with the chase, enjoying it for the sport, not the spoils.

What about ourselves? We humans? When the blood is up, we can be as mindless and aggressive as any wild thing trying to stay alive. We see ourselves at our most aggressive, least civilized, it seems to me, in two particular venues: sports and politics. We once spoke of life as a game. But aren’t games are something we indulge in for pleasure? For learning? For becoming more than we are? Watch puppies. See how they play at games that develop survival skills. Killing each other isn’t part of the game.

How is it then, that we cannot see in our own lives, the difference between sport and survival?